Show and TellFebruary 1, 2014

Planners Reveal Their Exhibitor Retention Tactics By
February 1, 2014

Show and Tell

Planners Reveal Their Exhibitor Retention Tactics
Museum Store Association

Jama Rice, MBA, CAE, Executive Director/CEO of the Museum Store Association, with Buyer’s Choice Award-winners from Solmate Socks at the 2013 MSA Expo in Los Angeles. The awards, voted on by attendees, give special recognition to exhibiting companies with the most innovative products. Credit: MSA

“Show and tell” brings to mind kindergarteners standing in front of the class proudly expounding on their most prized possessions. For association meeting and convention planners, a calculated exhibitor “show and tell” strategy is necessary to keep their most prized “possessions” coming back year after year.

Exhibitors, after all, are the financial lifeblood of associations, providing funds for member benefits and activities. But the fragile economy has exhibitors trimming their trade show budgets — and perhaps reallocating larger slices of marketing budgets to online advertising. So the pressure is on for planners to justify participation by proving return on investment; and to nurture exhibitor relationships before, during and after the show. It’s a crucial challenge, as it costs less time and money to keep exhibitors than to acquire new ones.

That’s why organizations such as the Museum Store Association (MSA), whose members include museum store professionals and their vendors, are redoubling efforts to retain their exhibitors.

While the MSA hasn’t significantly increased its number of exhibitors over the last few years, the organization has attracted 250 to 260 exhibitors to each of its annual conferences during that time. “That, to us, is a bit of a success story in this economy because of the economic challenges our members face and the market we are in,” says Jama Rice, MBA, CAE, executive director/CEO of the MSA. She is especially proud of the number of long-time exhibitors. Nearly 40 exhibitors have attended the conference for at least 14 out of the last 15 years.

The MSA’s success stems from ongoing exhibitor retention efforts. For example, the MSA is in the process of rolling out a new exhibitor services program. Previously, exhibitors contacted various MSA officials and third-party vendors for MSA services such as exhibit sales; advertising in the organization’s magazine and on its website and newsletter; and sponsorships and proprietary online product directory. The new program provides one point of contact within the MSA for all services.

“In years when it’s a little tough and you don’t have as many members coming as you would like due to economic challenges, exhibitors will still stand by you because they appreciate the relationship you have.”

— Jama Rice, MBA, CAE
Executive Director/CEO
Museum Store Association
Denver, CO

Stand By Me

Another key to the MSA’s retention plan involves maintaining good communication and relationships with exhibitors. “I have a lot of vendor friendships because we have taken time to build those relationships over time,” says Rice. “So in years when it’s a little tough and you don’t have as many members coming as you would like due to economic challenges, exhibitors will still stand by you because they appreciate the relationship you have.”

The MSA reaches out to exhibitors at its trade show as well as those of competitors. “At our trade show me and my staff visit each exhibitor and take them a little gift,” says Rice. “We discuss how it’s going and note any suggestions or ideas. It’s an effort to listen. Our exhibitors go to lots of shows over the year. I travel to those shows and so do our board members. We make a point to visit all the vendors at those shows to discuss how it’s going.”

Exhibition industry experts say that constant communication is paramount because it can identify exhibitors’ issues before they consider leaving. “You can use email and social media, but nothing beats a personal relationship with exhibitors — making that personal phone call and going to visit them,” says Lawson Hockman, CEM, vice president of industry relations for IMN Solutions, an Arlington, VA-based conference and trade show management company. “We make sure we know their products, their market trends and competitors to make sure we reflect that when talking to them,” says Hockman, who was a panel member in sessions on exhibitor retention at the 2012 International Association of Exhibitions and Events (IAEE) and the 2014 Convening Leaders annual conference and trade show of the Professional Convention Management Association (PCMA).

Selling Relationships

Hockman advises associations to focus more on cementing relationships with potential exhibitors than selling exhibitor space. “What I see in a lot of cases are too many exhibit salespeople (for associations) that are order-takers just trying to make a sale,” he says. “But to keep the show strong, you must have salespeople who are also very good with customer relations. It’s about selling relationships. If there is a strong relationship, in a lot of cases, if somebody is on the fence about leaving a show, they may give you good feedback on their concerns and stay.”

The Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) undertakes several efforts to strengthen exhibitor relationships. “We send them emails, we meet with them face-to-face, we have chapters in every major city in the world that provide technical education programs,” says Tommy Mayne, vice president of meetings for the IEEE. “The latest thing we are doing is social media. We market on LinkedIn the most with forums on industry trends, technology and others issues.”

The IEEE also encourages exhibitors to promote the organization’s trade show to potential attendees, thus creating more possible customers for all exhibitors. “Exhibitors are a marketing piece for us as well,” says Mayne. “We supply exhibitors with materials to put the conference in the minds of their customers. So when exhibitors call on engineers throughout the year, they can talk to them about coming to the conference. That works very well.”

The outreach strategies contribute to the IEEE’s success. The organization has an exhibitor retention rate of 65 to 70 percent at its annual IEEE Power and Energy Society Transmission & Distribution Conference & Exposition, which is held every two years. The group expects about 780 exhibitors this year compared to 704 in 2012 and 560 in 2010, says Mayne.

Attendee Audits

Maintaining good communication with exhibitors also involves providing them with feedback from surveys, or audits, of attendees. Audits can help associations provide what exhibitors value most of all — quality attendees who are potential customers. Attendee quality is the top factor exhibitors consider when deciding whether to exhibit, according to 2011 study by the Center for Exhibition Industry Research (CEIR). The second and third most important factors were return on investment (54 percent) and positive past performance (50 percent).

David Dubois, CAE, CMP, FASAE, CTA, president and CEO of IAEE, offers the following advice about audits to associations: “Don’t be afraid to audit your attendees,” he advises. “Let’s say you have two competitive shows. One gets 10,000 people and the other gets 12,000 people. They are equally priced, and both have great sessions and a great reputation. I’d go with the show that audits.”

Dubois adds that, when it comes to audits, the IAEE believes in leading by example. “We have an audit done of our attendees every year within 30 to 45 days of our annual meeting and exhibition,” says Dubois. “When exhibitors decide to exhibit and sponsors decide to sponsor, they want big data. They want to know who the attendees are and how many potential buyers attend.”

The IAEE makes its audit results available in materials provided to exhibitors when marketing exhibit space. Representatives of the IAEE also have the audit results at their fingertips when talking to potential exhibitors. “If a convention center in Asia wants to know how many of the buyers we have do business in Asia, we need to be able to say it’s 25 or 30 percent, which is actually what it is,” says Dubois.

The IAEE’s audits cover several areas, including the following: How many exhibitors are executives? What is the lead time for making purchases? Is exhibit cost most important or are there other factors? How is the show traffic?

Last year’s audit also assessed what exhibitors thought of a change in the annual meeting and exhibition format. “The conference changed from a one-day, six-hour show to a two-day show of three hours each day,” says Dubois. “We asked how that format went. Did you have enough traffic on the second day? Did you like the floor plan? Are there any recommendations on how we can improve traffic on the show floor?”

When possible, the questions in an audit should be geared to the exhibitors’ industry. It’s also best to change things up. “About every year, we have the audit refreshed with different questions,” says Dubois. “The best way to do it is to let an exhibitor advisory committee identify survey questions for the audit that will best serve their needs.”

Hockman suggests making the audit as thorough as possible without making it too long. He says, “I always want to know future buying needs and dates of possible purchases. Is there a preferred exhibitor? Are they receptive to buying from other exhibitors? How much will they spend over a certain period of time? And, will it be spent domestically or in the global market?”

Bringing Exhibitors Onboard

An exhibitor advisory committee (EAC) is another valuable tool for retaining exhibitors. Every association can define its EAC’s size, structure and role depending on the organization’s needs. For example, about a year ago, the MSA added an exhibitor to its board to allow members to get direct feedback on issues, suggestions and concerns, says Rice. “The representative has become somebody other exhibitors talk to because he speaks their language. He has provided a great deal of input to the board, and we share the information with all exhibitors.”

Experts offer the following advice on organizing an EAC: 

  • Include large and small exhibitors that offer a variety of services and products
  • Limit the group to 10–12 members. Large committees can become unwieldy.
  •  Don’t select only friends of association executives or only long-time vendors.
  •  Focus on issues that will improve the show for both exhibitors and attendees.
  •  Act on good recommendations so exhibitors won’t become discouraged.
  •  Share the EAC’s suggestions and resulting actions with exhibitors.

“We supply exhibitors with materials to put the conference in the minds of their customers. So when exhibitors call on engineers throughout the year, they can talk to them about coming to the conference. That works very well.”

— Tommy Mayne
Vice President of Meetings
Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers
Lacombe, LA

Handling Setbacks

Inevitably, despite the best retention efforts, every association must deal with exhibitors who decide to withdraw from a conference or trade show. How should planners and associations respond to exhibitors who want to pull out?

Dubois suggests that planners use a low-key approach with exhibitors: “We appreciate your support. We will continue to send you research from our audit. If it’s okay with you, can I talk to you after next year’s show to see if you would be interested in coming back?”

In addition, Dubois adds, “Sometimes such a soft touch works because their sales may drop after they leave. And sometimes they get business from the show but didn’t track it back into their database accurately, so they decide not to return.”

Dubois also suggests leaving the door open for dissatisfied advertisers and sponsors who eventually could return as exhibitors. “An advertiser spent $3,000 to be in our online directory a few years ago,” says Dubois. “He wanted his money back after a year because he got one lead. I asked the salesperson to give him half of his money back and try to keep him as a member. I said tell him respectfully that perhaps that wasn’t the right place to spend his marketing dollars. We wanted to satisfy him because, instead of advertising online, he might buy a booth one year. You never know.”

Hockman advises the following approach with exhibitors who consider leaving: “Sit down with them and find out why they feel that way. Build a plan to keep them. Look at who is attending the show to make sure it’s getting the people they need to see. In some cases, the right people are at the show but not coming to the exhibitor’s display for some reason. Help them build a program to make sure these people stop by their display.”

As part of the conversation, Hockman advises, planners should mention the benefits of exhibiting other than leads and sales, such as promotional value over the long run. “But sometimes the problem is a weak brand. Help them rebuild their brand through sponsorships, education programs and webinars,” says Hockman.

Catherine Perkins, who is a coordinator of event services for four associations and senior coordinator, events services, SmithBucklin, offers this advice: “I would work with the exhibitors to find out their goals and how we can help them get there. For a technology association, we had one of our biggest exhibitors and sponsors want to pull out after coming for about four years. The sales team worked with them, and they ended up coming after all.”

The exhibitor decided to come after scaling back its presence. “They downsized their sponsorship package but maintained their 10-by-20 booth,” says Perkins. “Our goal is to eventually get them back to that sponsorship level. In the coming year, we will have a sit-down meeting with them to discuss their plans.”

The PCMA session that included Hockman advised that associations ask themselves the following key questions:

  •  Do you have an exhibitor retention plan?
  •  What was your exhibitor retention rate from your last major annual trade show?
  •  Is your exhibition strategy aligned with the times?

Keeping exhibitors happy ensures a cycle of success. As Mayne puts it, “If we keep exhibitors and increase the number, we will make the (profit) margin we need to make. And if you get enough exhibitors then attendees don’t have to pay as much (registration fees). And if attendees don’t have to pay as much, they show up more. Exhibitors like that.” AC&F



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